Mike Phillips on the Lions' chances in New Zealand and the influence of Gatland

Alam Khan 1/06/2017
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Mike Phillips.

Emblazoned on his white boots, the words ‘I Did It My Way’ were rather apt when Mike Phillips bowed out of rugby after 16 years.

A nod to a classic Frank Sinatra song for one of the game’s great entertainers as he spread the news about his retirement last month.

After spells in Wales and France, it ended with a 27-24 win in the colours of Sale Sharks against Bath as he fulfilled an ambition to have “a crack at the English Premiership”.

“I thought the message on the boots would be funny,” said Phillips. “I’d like to think I tried to entertain, but at the start, people said I was too big to be a scrum-half, so it was also kind of to show I did it how I wanted.”

And while he may have regrets about some off-field incidents, he has none about what happened on it after reflecting on a career that saw him win 99 Test caps, 94 for Wales and five with the British & Irish Lions.

As the new batch of Lions enter the den of world champions New Zealand, Phillips described his two tours in 2009 and 2013 as the “ultimate experience”.

Part of Sir Ian McGeechan’s side in South Africa, he was one of the stand-out performers in a hard-fought and unlucky 2-1 series loss. But 2013 proved memorable as Phillips helped them win in Australia and clinch a first Test series for 16 years.

“It’s just the pinnacle,” he told Sport360°. “You are desperate to get on there, I was fortunate to do two tours, two very different tours. It’s a step up from internationals, the best of the best, phenomenal pressure and you just have to rise above it all and perform.

“It’s intense and about mental strength as well. In South Africa it was tough, we built a really good team spirit and unfortunately we didn’t get the rub of the green at times.

“We knew it was important to learn from that and take that on to Australia. A lot of the players did the two tours so there was the experience and we just had a great squad, more compact, and we outmuscled, outkicked and outplayed them.”

The Lions are now bidding for a first series win against the All Blacks since 1971. Despite losing legends like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after their 2015 World Cup triumph, Steve Hansen’s side have continued to conquer.

“Of course they are big losses, Carter and McCaw, but you have seen others have stepped up,” added Phillips.

“They are just phenomenal in how they keep producing these amazing players.

“But it’s a tour the Lions can win, it just depends on how games go beforehand and (if) they get some good momentum and avoid injuries.

“They have the talent. If you look at the back row, there are phenomenal options. That’s where it could be won and lost. How they are at the breakdown and, for me, the Lions have better options. It could be close like Australia was, but they can definitely win.”

With his former Wales coach Warren Gatland again in charge, and 12 of his compatriots in the 41-man squad, including captain Sam Warburton, Phillips, knows the Lions better than most.

“It’s a strong squad and with Sam captain again like he was in Australia,” he added. “It’s not much about what he says, but he leads from the front and his performances in the Six Nations were outstanding, his work on the floor at the breakdown was crucial. He’s a competitor, a warrior.

“Who could impress? Because of Gatland, I think Liam Williams has got a good opportunity to shine because he did well with Wales in New Zealand. He’s versatile, and just as good at full-back or wing.”

Warren Gatland.

Warren Gatland.

Phillips has also witnessed Gatland grow since his first Wales game in charge, an upset 26-19 win at England in the 2008 Six Nations. The talismanic No9 scored a crucial try that day to help overturn a 19-6 deficit and Wales went on to claim a 10th Grand Slam.

“He’s definitely changed a bit,” he said of New Zealander Gatland. “He’s a bit more serious than what he was at the start.

“He knows how to win games, has a phenomenal record. In the Welsh and Lions jerseys he’s definitely inspiring, goes through a few mind games with players and you can see it coming sometimes, but he pushes the right buttons to make you perform well and become winners.”

Gatland has also shown he is not afraid to leave sentiment aside in the pursuit of glory.

One such move saw him drop the popular Brian O’Driscoll for the third Test in Australia and he was vindicated as the Lions clinched the decider 41-16.

“He’s ruthless, very ruthless and it’s what you have to be really,” added Phillips. “It’s a tough job, can’t keep every player happy, can’t keep every fan happy. You have to back yourself and you have to admire him for that. Dropping O’Driscoll proved the right decision so fair dos to him. You have to make big decisions like that to win and he did it.”

Another such call Gatland made was not giving Phillips a 100th Test, even after calling him up as a replacement for the injured Rhys Webb at the 2015 World Cup. “It was a bit disappointing not to play,” he recalled, having made the decision to retire from internationals after the tournament. “I trained really hard and was in peak fitness, but that’s the direction they wanted to go. That’s fine, no regrets. I’ve been in the middle and part of what they won.

“If I told myself as a kid that I would have 99 caps I would have taken that. I’ve got some great memories in the Welsh jersey and played for some great clubs.”

Ever since a try-scoring Wales debut against Romania in 2003, Phillips has had to work hard to show his quality and shed a ‘bad boy’ image after being admonished and punished for brawls and drunken off-field antics.

But he is also a patron of UK charity Follow Your Dreams, which works with children and young people with learning disabilities, and said: “It’s something I’ve always done, but people maybe didn’t see that. I’m not trying to make myself into some sort of saint, I’ve made some poor decisions in my life, but they are about being young and being a bit silly.

“I think people have misjudged me. You are a different character when you are on the field to when you are off it.

“On it you have to become confident, arrogant in many ways, and a warrior. You have to have two faces. You can’t go out there and tickle people, you have to hurt people.

“Perhaps when I was young I didn’t realise people would know me or be that interested. Maybe that was being a bit naive, but I grew up in the countryside so we’re different.

“It’s a different era now, players are in elite squads from 13 and know what’s what.

“But to be playing for so long and achieve what I have, then for people to say I wasn’t professional was just stupid really.”

Blunt, brave, brilliant – and referencing Sinatra again – it would be ‘Somethin’ Stupid’ not to appreciate Phillips as a maverick yet magnificent player.

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George North excited by potential of Lions squad

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George North.

George North feels “the potential is pretty exciting” of a British and Irish Lions squad arriving for its six-week mission in New Zealand.

North and company were due to land in Auckland early on Wednesday, with the opening game of a demanding 10-match tour arriving just three days later.

The Lions’ only previous Test series triumph against New Zealand came 46 years ago, while their fixture schedule includes appointments with five Super Rugby sides, plus the Maori All Blacks.

It all reaches a climax with three Tests against the world champions, and Wales wing North, who starred for the triumphant Lions in Australia four years ago, is likely to be a key figure.

“I think the squad Gats (Lions head coach Warren Gatland ) has picked has got a mixture of that wide rugby with great skill-sets and speed, and there is also power and some serious force up front,” North told Press Association Sport.

“From a back’s point of view, that is all you can ask for – front-foot ball, and quick, as and when it comes, to go wide, wide.

“The potential is pretty exciting.”

North’s club Northampton were involved in two end-of-season European Champions Cup qualification play-offs earlier this month, which meant he was unavailable for both pre-tour Lions training camps in Wales and Ireland.

“It was strange,” he added. “You want to be present in all the camps to get yourself in the best position to learn your role as early as you can and understand the way that Gats wants to play.

“In 2013, I was there the whole time, and to have only been there for ‘messy Monday’ (Lions player administration day on May 8 ) and the day I fly, is completely different.

“A lot of hard work goes into it – your conditioning, weights, team sessions – and also bonding time as well, getting to know each other better before facing what is a massive task.”

North has been on the losing side three times against New Zealand during his 69-cap Wales career, while the Lions’ last experience at All Blacks’ hands was a sobering one, losing all three Tests 12 years ago and conceding 107 points.

“They are world champions and play an amazing brand of rugby,” said North, who is a Gillette ambassador for the Lions’ New Zealand tour.

“I think a lot of it is just the confidence they have in each other and the team to know they can go points behind, they can be under the cosh for a while, but they can turn games around and still win.

“The skill-set they have from numbers one to 23 – they’ve got props throwing 20-metre passes off left or right hand – their game understanding and game awareness is great.

“And if you look at the fact how well the New Zealand Super Rugby sides are playing, it shows exactly where they are and the quality of players they’ve got.”

North is among a group of players who were involved during the 2013 Lions trip to Australia – he scored tries in two of the three Tests – and he believes that experience will help this time around.

“I think from a player’s point of view, we learnt a lot from 2013, not just from what we achieved as a squad, and we can use that as a springboard to push on again,” he added.

“The whole tour was a great experience, and one that will always stay with me. It is a tremendous honour to be selected for the Lions.

“I had never experienced it before, but special is the word to describe it. Players from four nations coming together is brilliant.”

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Lions will 'struggle' against All Blacks, says Eddie Jones

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Eddie Jones.

England coach Eddie Jones said the British and Irish Lions will “struggle” to beat the All Blacks in their three-Test series because of the tactics of their coach, Warren Gatland.

Jones said the Lions, who are expected to favour Gatland’s “Warrenball” approach of powerful, direct running, must win the first Test on June 24 or be prepared for a “tough old series”.

“It is going to be very tough for them mate,” Jones told the London Telegraph’s Full Contact podcast.

“They have picked a certain style of team based on the influence of the Welsh coaches. So I think they are looking to attack like Wales with big, gainline runners with not much ball movement.

“I think you struggle to beat the All Blacks like that.”

Gatland, who is Wales’s head coach, led the Lions to a 2-1 victory over Australia on their last tour in 2013.

The New Zealander has Wales’s Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins in his backroom staff, along with England’s Steve Borthwick, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree.

“The All Blacks are not only a physical contest, it is a big mental contest,” warned Jones, who orchestrated five wins over New Zealand when he was coach of Australia.

“You have to be very disciplined in the way you play, you’ve got to chip away at them.

“You’ve got to keep the pressure on, you’ve got to exert pressure in areas that they don’t like, which is traditionally the close set-piece play but then have the ability when you create opportunities, to turn that into points.

“Ireland did it really well and I think the Lions are going to struggle. If they win the first Test, they win the series. If they don’t, I think it might be a tough old series for them.”

Gatland has said he takes inspiration from Ireland’s shock victory over New Zealand in Chicago last year, which halted a world-record run of 18 straight victories.

Jones added that while Gatland’s Wales play to a “system”, his England side — who have won the last two Six Nations — “play much more with our eyes open” and try to stay alive to opportunities.

The Lions, whose only Test series victory in New Zealand was in 1971, arrive on Wednesday at the start of a nearly six-week tour.

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